NC Senate nominees parry over abortion, inflation in debate

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The major-party candidates to succeed retiring North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr parried over inflation, abortion and election integrity Friday night in what’s expected to be their only debate.

Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley and Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd met at a Raleigh cable television studio for nearly an hour of questions.

This election outcome in North Carolina, where statewide elections are usually evenly divided but where Democrats haven’t won a Senate race since 2008, could decide which party takes a majority in the current 50-50 Senate. Mail-in absentee voting started last month, and early in-person voting begins Oct. 20.

Democratic hopes this time are in Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who would be the first Black senator for North Carolina if elected.

Budd, a gun shop and range owner first elected to Congress in 2016, relied heavily of President Donald Trump’s endorsement and outside spending to win the Republican primary in May. Budd welcomed Trump again to the state for a rally two weeks ago.

Beasley, who came out quickly as an aggressor in the debate, said Trump “represents the most extremist policies and ideology ... the reality is Congressman Budd has aligned himself with somebody who is truly extremist in this race, and that’s a reflection on him."

Budd defended accepting Trump's help, pointing to the low unemployment and low inflation during the former president's term in office and Trump's victories in North Carolina in 2016 and 2020 — compared with higher inflation today.

Trump “had a lot of wins here in this state, including for our economy,” Budd said. In turn, Budd said Beasley was running away from President Joe Biden, and that she “would be a rubber stamp” for his policies if elected.

Beasley refused to answer directly the moderator's question about whether she would appear with Biden if he agreed to campaign for him: “President Biden is certainly welcome to be here ... We want him to know and meet folks and hear from folks here in the state.”

Beasley also criticized Budd for voting in the House in early 2021 to attempt to block certification of the 2020 election. He defended that action, saying “the core of that vote ... was to inspire more debate because. I think debate is healthy for democracy.”

Budd also said he would accept the results of next month’s election.

Beasley said it was “outrageous” that Budd has tried to compare the 2020 presidential election challenge to her 2020 campaign for chief justice, which questioned the counting or rejection of thousands of specific absentee ballots. Beasley ended up losing by 401 votes from 5.4 million ballots cast.

Beasley said she requested “a free and fair recount and legal recount to make sure that every single vote was counted.”

Beasley continued to pound on Budd for his opposition to abortion, which has taken on great importance in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade.

Budd co-sponsored a measure last month that would ban abortion nationally after 15 weeks of pregnancy He previously backed bills that would ban abortions after cardiac activity is detected, which is usually around six weeks of fertilization.

“The bottom line is Congressman Budd wants to be in between a woman and her doctor, and there is no place in the exam room for Congressman Budd,” she said.

Budd said “I’ve always been pro-life.” When asked what his abortion bill would look like, he responded: “I’ve always been about protecting the life of the mother. I want to save as many unborn lives as possible.”

He accused Beasley of being extreme on abortion for supporting a federal bill that would codify the previous Supreme Court standard.

While Beasley’s campaign has outraised Budd throughout the campaign entering the summer, national Senate Republican groups have neutralized that advantage already spending over $26 million against her, according to campaign reports. National Democrats, in turn, have spent a small fraction of that amount for Beasley or against Budd. Beasley’s supporters hoped her debate performance Friday would attract more outside help.

Beasley, who has tried to attract votes from rural areas that have shifted to the right, said Budd has repeatedly voted against the needs of North Carolina residents. She says that includes opposing bills that would have capped the cost of insulin for seniors and allowed the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare.

Budd and Beasley have tried to portray themselves as an ally of law enforcement, although Budd has received the lion’s share of endorsement from groups representing troopers, police officers and border patrol agents.

Budd declined to participate in any of the four GOP primary debates. In the Democratic primary, the field had been cleared of Beasley’s leading competitors during the last five months of the race.

The Libertarian and Green party candidates didn’t participate in Friday’s debate but were interviewed beforehand by Spectrum 1 News.

Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press